December is generally the time of year when critics put out their Top 100 lists, their Best Albums of 2010 lists, their top singles of the year. I have some ideas on the subject, but I haven’t worked out my own painstakingly ordered list yet. Partly it’s because I’ve been caught up in the seismic shakeups in journalism, politics, technology, and everything that’s happening in the world at large (more on this later). But it’s also because I’ve never much cared for making ranked lists; I’ve voted in Pazz and Jop and various other critics’ polls for almost ten years now, but I never have much fun doing it, to be honest. I’ve argued in the past that the practice of list-making — of ranking items into strict hierarchies, and arguing about said hierarchies — seemed to me to be a strangely male phenomenon. I know plenty about labels, genres, years; I have an absurd knowledge of arcane trivia, as any good critic should. But I just don’t view music in a linear way; my view is more oceanic, omnidirectional. In my head, Cluster’s 1974 album Zuckerzeit, a Ron Hardy DJ mix from 1986, and a mixtape a friend made me were all essential parts of my 2010, too.
There are albums I’ve liked very much that were released this year. When I was in LA I bought Ariel Pink’s Before Today on vinyl, and it reminds me of my time there, much of which was spent in a car. I’ve listened to the album at a variety of different speeds — 33 rpm, 45 rpm, pitched down to a sludgy -8, pitched up to a peppy +4 — and I’ve been fascinated by it every single time. (I like it backwards, too.) The revelatory Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat reissue on Bombay Connection, which I’ve written about extensively, is most definitely in my Top 10. So is LCD Soundsystem’s This is Happening. Matthew Herbert’s One One (and One Club) impressed me, both as concepts and as music. I got caught up in Pantha du Prince’s Black Noise, and all its exquisite melancholia. And Actress’ Splazsh, which conjured up strange waves of nostalgia in me. Emeralds, who I had the good fortune to see at Unsound in Poland, blew me away. As did Keith Fullerton Whitman, who I am glad to see is pursuing a relentless schedule of releases in a variety of formats. Moon Wiring Club. The soft-focus dreaminess of Ireland’s Solar Bears, a lovely surprise in a tough year. Forest Swords. Rene Hell. Space Dimension Controller. Ewan Pearson’s We Are Proud of Our Choices. James Blake. Recently, I’ve been devouring Shackleton’s new Fabric mix (can that man do no wrong?) and the Africa: 50 Years of Music box set, a mammoth 18-CD compilation of African pop which was released a few months ago to little fanfare. (My friend Michaelangelo wrote a great piece about it, here.) Some albums which received a lot of hype this year in electronic circles, like Shed’s The Traveller and Oneohtrix Point Never’s Returnal, didn’t stick with me for very long. (As for the latter — who I wrote about for Frieze here — I think Rifts, a fantastic compilation of earlier work released in 2009 on No Fun, blows Returnal out of the water.) I’m coming around to the Kanye record, but I’m still trying to peel back the thirty thousand layers of bombast. To be sure, there are many other albums I’m forgetting. But here’s one album, released this year, that I haven’t forgotten since I first heard it.
That album is Peter Gordon and the Love of Life Orchestra, a compilation of tracks made in downtown New York City in the late 1970s that was reissued this year on DFA. It is my vote for reissue of the year, and possibly album of the year. I am surprised that this album didn’t get more press. I wrote a piece about it for NPR a few months ago, but I wasn’t very happy with how it turned out (it was edited while I was on the road in Europe, and there wasn’t enough time for discussion about the edits and additions that were made.) I’ve listened to the album at least a hundred times now. Every time I hear new resonances; I hear a new instrument, a new musician, a new edit — something that surprises me. I loved the stories behind it, the intriguing tangle of artists and musicians who were involved in it. Here was a piece of downtown New York in the late 1970s that had somehow escaped being reissued until now, when seemingly everything else from that world has been. I liked that there was a band (actually, just one artist, a wonderful one, by the name of Colette) named Justine and the Victorian Punks.
This song, from that album, is one of my favorites. It’s called “That Hat,” and it features Arthur Russell. I thought I knew nearly everything that Arthur Russell had released — so much of his oeuvre has been exhumed in recent years, to the point of exhaustion — but “That Hat” is one of the finest Russell songs I’ve heard. “That Hat” changes every few bars and decides to become a new song. That’s fine, because every song it morphs into is a great song. The chorus is unexpected and beautiful and doesn’t happen until something like six minutes in, and the lyrics are goofy and utterly endearing.
And here’s my favorite song from the record –”Another Heartbreak/Don’t Don’t Redux,” which cycles through so many emotions, instruments, ideas, and genres over twelve and a half minutes that I’ve lost count. “Kaleidoscopic” is definitely an overused word in music criticism, but that’s the only word I can think of to describe this. There are cellos, horns, and scratchy guitars. There is — yes — a noodly saxophone solo, which breaks down into noise. There is an interlude that sounds like pure 1960s Minimalism. In the final four minutes, it speeds up suddenly and becomes pure disco. Near the end, a small choir of women sing the words “Don’t, don’t, please don’t leave me” in a way that’s so precise that it will break your heart.
I’ll write more on music later on, but the next post or two on here will likely be about politics.